Threading the needle: A refugee uses his tailoring skills to serve his community

Responding to the coronavirus pandemic, a newly resettled refugee calls on his professional training to sew critically needed masks for health care workers.

June 11, 2020

His colleagues call him “the Mask Master.”

That’s because Ebrahim, working quickly and with precision, turns around about 100 cloth masks a day at his West Michigan manufacturing job. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, he was sewing covers for office chairs. And before that, he was a tailor in Iran, where he lived for decades as an Afghan refugee.

Resettled last fall in West Michigan, Ebrahim is using his considerable skill to serve his new community and supply critically needed personal protective equipment. “It makes me feel really good to help,” he said through an interpreter. “I love to be of service.”

Ebrahim was 15 when his family fled Afghanistan for Iran. It was there that he became an apprentice to his brother, a trained tailor, and he eventually started his own tailoring business. Ebrahim made pants, shirts, dresses, coats, and shoes, but his specialty was making liners for boots and shoes. The pattern he developed was so precise, he began selling his products to a shoe manufacturer. In Iran, Ebrahim met his wife, Farzana, also an Afghani refugee, and together they have four children.

In 2019—after a three-year application and vetting process—Ebrahim’s family was resettled in the U.S. and welcomed by Bethany’s refugee and immigrant services program. Since 1975, Bethany has provided refugee resettlement services, including help with housing, employment, case management, and cultural orientation.

Employment is key for refugees to become self-sufficient. That’s why Bethany develops partnerships with area employers and provides skills training for refugee clients. Bethany participates in two employment programs for refugees in West Michigan that together help about 500 adults prepare for and find a job. One is a state-funded program that enrolls refugees at any point within their first five years in the U.S. Stacey Vos leads the other, a smaller, grant-funded program that enrolls refugees in their first six months in the U.S. After that initial time frame, clients can transfer to the other employment program if they need additional assistance.

“We serve a wide range of people within the refugee population,” Stacey said. “They come from different countries, cultures, and backgrounds. Some are from rural settings where they had no opportunity to go to school. Others have advanced degrees and advanced English skills. When refugees are first referred to us, we assess their English proficiency, education, job skills, and strengths, and we match them with a job where they can be successful.”

Clients participate in an intensive, one-week work skills class where they learn job search basics such as filling out job applications, interviewing, dressing for an interview, and cultural expectations in the workplace. Clients may also enroll in English and adult literacy classes as needed to boost their language fluency.

“Language is the biggest barrier,” Stacey said. “Many of the jobs available to our clients don’t require a lot of English—such as manufacturing, where the essential job skill is visual. Most of our Grand Rapids clients are doing light industrial work for companies that serve automotive or food manufacturing industries. Ebrahim’s job, doing industrial sewing, was a unique fit because of his tailoring experience. Sewing is a skill a lot of Americans don’t have, but it’s common in other countries.”

Bethany has a network of nearly 500 area companies, and that number is growing. “Employers routinely tell us our workers are dependable and hardworking,” Stacey said. “We get a lot of referrals from companies that tell other businesses, ‘You should hire these people; they’re reliable.’”

Like many manufacturing workers, Ebrahim was initially laid off because of the coronavirus. But when his employer was able to pivot from sewing upholstery to sewing masks, Ebrahim was called back to work. The company is also makings face shields for health care workers.

Ebrahim is grateful he can use his skills, training, and experience to help others and meet a critical need. “To go from threading a needle on the other side of the world to helping save lives in this country, in this community that has given me so much,” he said, “it makes me so happy.”

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